The first and only time I ever flew business class, was to Comoros. This was because on the day I needed to get to Comoros – all economy flight tickets were sold out. It was a 7am flight to Moroni via Mayotte. At that time I wondered, “Where on earth is Mayotte?” I was so upset when I discovered that Mayotte was in fact in Africa and was still a French territory. When we learnt about the Scramble for Africa and colonialization, why did they leave out the chapter about some African territories still being held by European countries? In Mayotte, obviously there was no getting out of the airport – as we were now in France (though still in Africa…) and I didn’t have a Schengen visa. Oh, I almost forgot – in business class – you get offered champagne – even at 7am – I could not resist:-)
The plane announcements were a bit different. The pilot mentioned we would be watching a certain movie – then proceeded to list the cast – Bette Midler….the director…I don’t remember. I got to Moroni and the weather was lovely. I got out of the airport and jumped into the first cab I saw. Ahmed, the driver was really friendly. He had spent some time in Nairobi and Zanzibar – he spoke perfect Kiswahili. We had a few minutes of small talk, then he jumped straight into the question many Comorians ask a few minutes after meeting you, “Are you married?” I am beginning to think the world-over, questions such as marital status, age, number of children etc. are the first things most people want to know about strangers, but we have been taught it’s impolite to ask such questions without knowing someone well. I say this because the more I travel, the more I realize that what “we” consider appropriate is not the same everywhere. I say “we” because even that needs to be questioned. Who am I talking about when I say we? Kenyans? Africans? Africans who have lived abroad? That’s the thing with culture – it is not static and there are so many sub-cultures even within what might be considered the dominant culture.
I needed to change cash. I told Ahmed about it – expecting we would go to an exchange bureau, but instead we ended up at an Indian owned supermarket – the owners changed money for me behind the counter. As we drove through Moroni, I kept on waiting to see the real city center – somewhere perhaps with many high rise buildings, supermarkets etc., but this did not quite happen at any point.
I got to my hotel and the view from it was stunning. Comoros had such great natural beauty – I kept on wondering how it could be so stunning, but not be a tourist attraction. There is so much potential in Comoros as there is in many other struggling nations – if only certain major issues could be resolved. Around 2pm I was called from the reception to meet with my project team-mates. I was in very casual clothes – I got down and the team instantly said we needed to go visit the client. I was a bit mortified as I didn’t have a chance to change into more formal clothes. I survived though – I think the client assumed I had just flown in. It was more of a courtesy call – rather than a real visit. I was able to converse in French enough to not look absolutely ridiculous, but I had an awkward moment when the client needed to give me a phone number. Has anyone ever been given a phone number in French? This is what this number will sound like.
731-96-74 = Seven hundred thirty and one. 4 times 20 and 16. Sixty plus fourteen….
In short, it is absolute rocket science. Someone starts reading out the numbers and you realize you just can’t keep up or understand. After various tries, I just humbled myself – gave them my notebook to write it in.
Also the client kept cracking jokes – I joined everyone in laughter – though I only understood a fraction of what he was saying. The challenges of languages you’re not perfect in.
After the meeting, I went back to the hotel. In Comoros, we had hired a local consultant to help me navigate the islands – I would be traveling around the country. Our project entailed surveying about a third of all the primary schools in the country. I was to cover the islands of Moheli and Ndzouani with the local consultant, while my Francophone colleague would cover the main island – Grand Comores/Moroni. Me and the local consultant were mostly conversing in a mix of French and Shikomoro (which has some similarities with Kiswahili – about 20% of the words are Kiswahili ones, though with some interesting variations. For example “Lala unono” means goodbye in Shikomori, but in Kiswahili it means sleep well. Fundi means repairman (carpenter, mechanic, plumber etc.) in Kiswahili but in Shikomori it means teacher. I am always fascinated by how language changes over time. I had noticed that the only other people staying at the hotel – were high ranking military officers from the African Union troops. I could tell they were all from different countries as I overhead conversations in Portuguese, French, English etc. in a variety of accents. I went to my room in the early evening, but my door wouldn’t open. One of the army generals passed close to my door and saw me struggling. Quite coincidentally he was Kenyan – General Githinji. He must have been in his mid 60s. I thanked him and got in. A few hours later, my room phone rang. I was surprised – who was looking for me in the evening?
“Hello! Wanjiku. Ni General Githinji. Ndina kawine guakwa. Uka ukude kawine mum”/ “Hello Wanjiku. It is General Githinji. I have some wine in my room. Come have a sip.”
Funny thing was – I would actually have killed for some wine right around then. I had not realized how hard it would be to get alcohol in Comoros, but this little red riding hood – knew the big bad wolf was not luring her to his room for wine. I was not born yesterday.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m about to sleep. I have an early morning flight. Have a good night General Githinji/Big bad wolf trying to lure me with candy...."